Authie et Mi

Eat lunch then fly

14th April 2012

When I had made my arrangements to visit Vytautas it was on the understanding that he would not take time off to run around after me, but that he would take me out at the weekend into the countryside.

What I had not expected was for him to announce that we were going to belt down the autoroute the 300 kilometres to Klaipėda on the western coast (Well it has to be the western one because the one on the east is called Belarus ! ).

The road was excellent and very fast. One of the first things that I noticed was the number of isolated houses dotted about in the fields. There are some villages in and around the cities that serve as commuter bases but elsewhere the concept of village only arrives once in a blue moon, and some of those that qualified for a place name were often merely a cluster of houses.

Not a shopping mall in sight.

Because this was the main connecting road between Vilnius (the present capital) Kaunas (the former one) and Klaipėda (never one) the road also serves as a bus route. Every now and then there would be signs warning of pedestrians crossing the autoroute and the requirement to slow to 100 kph. Often as not there would be somebody sitting at the bus stop, though we rarely saw a bus.

At one time Lithuania had one of the worst driving records within the European Union but the government has made considerable efforts to try and improve the situation. Speed cameras abound though I never actually saw one go off despite a lot of excessive speed on behalf of some drivers. In some of the more built up areas that we passed through we were forced to slow down to 80 kph but after that it was back to the open road.

Most of the cars on the roads are pretty modern and they have to undergo testing so I felt a lot more secure than on some of my first independent visits to Russia where the taxi drivers in their Lada’s helped contribute to the nation’s sales of toilet paper.

On the road Evaldas informed me that his father Arūnas was going to take me up for a flight in his ULM from the airfield just outside Klaipėda. We had to be there before 1300 hours and it was going to take us the best part of four hours to make the journey. However it was pretty evident by lunchtime that it was looking grey with a very low cloud base.

The decision was made that we would go into Klaipėda for a potter and lunch and see what happened. Having come from France where we are already well into spring it was difficult to accept that the snow had only just dispersed in Lithuania and that we were still well outside of the tourist season.

I kept asking where everybody was because the town seemed deserted. But no matter we had lunch and got a call that the cloud level had cleared a bit and the sun was coming through so we could go back out to the airfield. The question was put to me about doing some acrobatics and in the best traditions of having worked with devious helicopter pilots I replied that such a flight wouldn’t pose me any problems.

The aircraft was a X-32 Bekas which is a well built Ukrainian machine. When not teaching people to fly Evaldas’s dad is involved in aerial photography for some of those ‘From the Air’ books.

There is not much room in the back of one of these wee machines and I did not need to be told not to touch the controls. Having folded myself into the seat and adjusted the seat harness we set off. It felt as though we were airborne almost the moment we started down the runway.

Having waved goodbye to the airfield we headed inland to try and catch some of the sunnier areas – it would have been nice to fly over the coast but you can’t have everything.

From the air the flatness of the countryside is immediately noticeable. Even Flanders has the occasional hill but although in places the farmland had a few rolling dips there was nothing comparable to the Monts de Flandres.

I could just about get my general bearings from the autoroute and could make out the odd river, lots of forest and plenty of water from the melted snow. This close to a major city there are new estates springing up here and there but further away it was back to all these wee houses sitting out by themselves.

The other thing I had remarked upon was the lack of work going on in the fields. It was obvious that a lot of the countryside was still sodden but even so there wasn’t a great deal of movement out there on what was obviously dry cultivated land.

Apart from the pines none of the trees were remotely near foliage and as I have mentioned before the grassland was a rather sad colour and needing some warmth and sunshine.

As we got further inland the sun cut through and we started to gain altitude climbing through the clouds. Then Arūnas started to throw the craft about a bit. It was fine for him, he knew what he was about to do but poor old me in the back; one moment I would be about to take a photograph and the next, the subject had shot out of view as we suddenly banked and dropped away.

The plane is so light and responsive that the slightest movement of the controls has her manoeuvring all over the place. Up and up we went and then we started to drop gathering enough speed to loop. At this stage the G force ensured that I was pressed back into my seat and by the time that I took the photo of us heading towards the ground all I got was us going skywards.

I was treated to a few more sudden banks but was then allowed to get on and take my photos. We circled the airfield and then came in to land. A twenty minute flight which had been most enjoyable. Nobody tried to sell me an overpriced sandwich or offer me bargain duty free items and I actually think I had more leg room than in the 737 on the flight over.

Next stop the seaside.

More to come…

Posted : 20 April 2012

Travel, Lithuania